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The Supernatural and “Supernatural” November 7, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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8 comments

Oftentimes, during a conversation between a theist making a conversion attempt and an atheist, the topic of lack of evidence for the supernatural comes up.  And sometimes the atheist demands, not only evidence that the supernatural exists, but some kind of an explanation for the mechanism by how it operates.  But I don’t need that second part, and don’t think we need to demand it.  If I had strong enough evidence that the supernatural existed, I’d accept that it did.

The theist will then usually protest about how there’s tons of evidence.  Faith healing that’s not statistically better than placebos!  A plane crashed and somebody survived!  Just look at the trees! And other such stuff that isn’t good evidence for the supernatural.

What would a world look like where there was good evidence for the existence of the supernatural?  I’ve found a really good example.  I’ve just finished a binge watch on Netflix of the first eleven seasons of the series Supernatural (go figure).  The basic setup, for those of you unfamiliar with the show, is a pair of brothers who travel the country saving people from various supernatural bad guys and monsters.  In their world, this stuff really exists, and behaves in predictable ways.  The brothers are often testing solutions to see what works, and researching into records to see what has been successful for other monster hunters in the past. For example, what works on a werewolf always works on a werewolf, but is not necessarily effective on a skinwalker or a vampire.  The trunk of their car is filled with dozens of different weapons, to be prepared for anything they run into.

I’d like to look at the show’s treatment of demons in particular, since often theists claim that demons are real.

In this show, if someone is possessed by a demon, there’s no vague “I think they’re possessed because they said crazy things” or “I have a bad feeling”.  Nope, in the Supernatural world, if you think someone is demon possessed, throw holy water on them.  If it burns them, and they smoke and scream, there’s a demon.  If they say “what did you do that for?” then it’s not a demon.  (Could be something else, though.  Best to run a few other tests.)

Demons can possess people without their permission, but can be evicted by someone else performing the exorcism incantation, upon which they exit from the possessed person visibly.  No uncertain “I feel better now, so it must be gone” stuff. You can see it leave.

demon-leaving

But if you want to kill it, you need a special demon knife.  And there are specific rules and constraints on their behavior.   They are unable to possess someone who has a warding tattoo:

anti-demon-tattoo

If you trick one of them into standing on a devil’s trap, even if it’s under a carpet, they can’t leave until the trap outline is broken.

devils-trap

If you put specific items in a box, bury it at a crossroads, and say the right incantation, a crossroads demon will appear, ready to make a deal with you.

crossroads-demonAnd if you make a deal with a demon, they will abide by it, no cheating.  But you had better read the fine print first, because they will abide by the letter of the agreement, not the intent.

And there’s a lot more specifics on demons, that I won’t go into here.  Each different sort of baddie in the series also has specific characteristics and weaknesses.  Not some vague woo-woo “I feel a spirit in the room whose name starts with either a C or a J”.  Nope, if there’s a ghost around, the temperature drops, the EM meter goes whoop, the ghost is usually visible and often solid, and they are repelled by cold iron or salt.  You want to be rid of them?  Find out what is tethering them to earth (usually remains of some kind) salt and burn that, and the ghost disappears in a burst of flame.  Usually just in the nick of time, of course.

burn-the-bones

Sam and Dean don’t need to know the actual mechanism that makes all this possible.  They just see it in action, every day.  If theists could pull out examples of stuff like this, that’s predictable and testable and doesn’t line up with the laws of our physical universe, and our most thorough testing was unable to reveal any use of trickery or special effects, then I’d be willing to consider that the supernatural exists.  I wouldn’t need to know how it works, I’d be fine with seeing that it does work.

But Sam and Dean’s world isn’t our world.  The show even made this point by having the characters break through into our world at one point, where they found themselves on a TV set in Vancouver, and to their dismay found out that magic doesn’t work here!

Of course, I would not need a theist to show me exactly this evidence to establish that the supernatural is something more than their imagination.   But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Claiming the existence of an invisible realm full of invisible super-beings that interact with us?  That’s really, really extraordinary.  Show me evidence as strong as the characters are provided with on this show, or don’t bother.

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Answers to “A Question for Atheists” August 14, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Questions, Responses.
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9 comments

Godless Cranium linked to a post at flyinguineapig, with two longish questions for atheists. Flyinguineapig appears to be a strongly christian blogger, but these questions aren’t really the typical “gotcha” questions that I would expect to see on a blog of that sort, so I’ll go ahead and tackle them. Rather than try to answer in the comments at either of those blogs, I’ll post my answers here, and link back to them.  Also, I prefer to write my own answers before I read through everybody else’s answers.

My first question is more general. I see this among atheists and my agnostic friends. People deny the possibility of any deity’s existence because of the lack of some kind of proof. It occurred to me that I have no idea what kind of proof you’re looking for. Furthermore, it seems to me that, in many cases, not just in the case of spirituality, what constitutes proof is at least somewhat subjective. I would love to get a few different perspectives, so my question is, what would prove to you that God exists?

Let me start with this part of the question: “People deny the possibility of any deity’s existence…”  Most atheists I know don’t actually do this, so the question is starting out with rather of a strawman assumption.

The difficult part of this assumption is – how do you define a god?  It’s a really nebulous term.  I know what the christians mean when they talk about their god, but the question here is “any deity”.  What characteristics would a being need to have in order for us to consider it a god?  Let’s look at a few examples: (more…)

That one spooky thing (wrap-up) October 14, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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3 comments

 

Spooky-Moon-Morguefile-photo

OK, time to wrap the series up.

When you’ve deconverted from religion and superstition, and decided to live a life based in reality, what do you think about that one strange thing that might have once happened to you?  That thing that keeps you convinced that there’s a supernatural realm out there somewhere?

Before you can decide that it’s actually “supernatural”, you really need to consider the following alternate possibilities, which I’ve discussed in earlier posts:

  • It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you (Part 1)
  • It’s technological (also Part 1)
  • It’s somebody deliberately tricking you (Part 2)
  • It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above (Part 3, 3.1 and 3.2)
  • It’s “supernatural”

So, when you are thinking of that thing you once saw, before you conclude it was an actual “impossible thing”, first you need to run through a serious thought process about it.  Could you have mis-perceived it initially?  Or filled in mental gaps based on what you expected to see?  Did someone have something to gain by tricking you?  And have you embellished your memory over time, to the point where what you remember now really might not be what you saw initially?

Suppose that you have run through all those possibilities, and still have not come up with a plausible explanation.  Then you are left with two possibilities that I can think of.  Either it actually fell under one of the above categories but you couldn’t figure it out, or it was ‘supernatural”.  (Remember probability, which of those is most likely?)

So, finally, if you have still come to the conclusion that the thing you saw might actually  be supernatural”, we have the problem of defining that term.  Like “spirituality”, it’s a word that people throw around all the time, but when asked for a straightforward definition, they either can’t define it, or define it in terms of other vague undefined concepts, which isn’t helpful.  Here’s my working definition of “supernatural”:  We live in a four dimensional space-time universe  of matter and energy, governed by predictable physical forces.  That’s the “natural world”.  “Supernatural” would be something that is not that, either wholly or in part.

For us to detect something “supernatural”, it would have to have the ability to interact with our physical world in some way.  Even if that’s just deflecting some photons, or causing an EM disruption, or just planting a thought in somebody’s brain, all of those things are interactions with our physical world.  Any being that is completely unable to interact with our world would be totally undetectable and therefore irrelevant.

To be sure that something is really supernatural, you’d have to examine it in a way that eliminates all of the other possibilities we have already discussed.  Since the real world is so messy, the best way we can be sure is to do carefully controlled examinations, where we reduce the variables down to just the thing we are examining and eliminate cheating.  Of course, a fleeting “ghostly vision” isn’t going to be easy to catch in a lab experiment!   Lots of investigators have worked to pin down something “supernatural”, to where we could get a look at it, and actually say something coherent about it.  Alas, the better the controls are on your experiment, the more the “supernatural” aspect goes away.  The JREF has had a standing ONE MILLION DOLLAR prize to anyone who can demonstrate something supernatural under conditions controlled to eliminate cheating and wishful thinking.  So far no one has even passed the first round of tests.  Does this mean there isn’t any such thing?  Well, no, but given the results so far,  I’m not holding my breath.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1 Part 2 – Part 3Part 3.1Part 3.2

10 Questions for Every Atheist July 16, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Responses.
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13 comments

This list has been floating around the internet for a few days.  I did a response to a similar list of 15 questions awhile back, and you can find my answers to that one here: 15 Question Atheist Challenge (Edit – and another fairly stupid 10-question set I answered here.)  But I suppose I’ll join in and answer these too.

The list recently appeared here: http://todaychristian.net/10-questions-every-atheist/#_

But was lifted from a post by Robert Neilsen, an atheist, here: http://robertnielsen21.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/10-questions-for-atheists/

The first thing that caught my eye is this lead-in on the TodayChristian website:

Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…

And you will never hear any of those conclusions from their website, because commenting was not allowed on that post.  Because throwing out an assertion like that wouldn’t be any fun if the real atheists were actually allowed to show up and refute it by truly and honestly really answering them.  So here’s my shot at truly and honestly really answering them.  I’ll try to keep each answer succinct, since I tend to ramble sometimes.

1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?

Short version: I read the bible, just like my youth leaders said I should.  Twice, cover to cover, two different translations. And then in college, I ran headlong into people who were crazy fundamentalists of one sort or another, and the nutcase preachers like Brother Jed, each totally certain that they were right and everybody else was going to burn in hell.  And I started thinking about whether it made sense to believe any of this, and I realized that it didn’t.  And I thought about whether the stuff I had been taught had any more solid basis in reality, and it didn’t.  By the end of college I was functionally an atheist, but didn’t adopt the word until later.  That was around 30 years ago now, and I’m still not believing any of it.

2.       What happens when we die?

We decompose, and the brain that produces the activity that we call our “conscious mind” stops doing that.

3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

Then I’ll have a wonderful time at the Beer Volcano, while all you christian infidels have to settle for flat beer and ugly strippers down in Hell Lite.  Oh, did you mean YOUR version of heaven and hell?  Why are those any more likely to be true than all the other versions?

4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?

Same place everybody does.  My own sense of empathy and compassion, plus rules devised from the need to live together with other people in groups.  By trial and error over thousands of years, we’ve worked out some pretty good rules for co-existing.  Not that there still isn’t room for improvement.

Some people think they get their morality from ancient books or supernatural beings.  But I think that’s just religion taking credit for something it didn’t invent.

5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

How would there being a god make you not free to do those things?  Plenty of religious people do those things all the time, the fact that they think there is a god watching doesn’t stop them.

But I’m not free to murder and rape if I want to live as part of a community of other people.

6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

I create my own meaning in life.  Being told what my life is supposed to be by some superbeing would be awful.

7.       Where did the universe come from?

I don’t know.  But we are developing some good ideas about what happened right at the start, and those come from looking at the evidence and following where it leads.  I don’t pretend to know stuff that I don’t, that’s what religion does.

8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

Look up confirmation bias.  Humans are really good at paying attention to the things that match up with their preconceptions and ignoring everything that doesn’t.  And we’re really good at fooling ourselves.

9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?

You left out Dennett!  I agree with some of the things they say, and disagree with others.  There are other atheist writers and speakers I find more often in line with what I think, including Greta Christina, Matt Dillahunty, and Hemant Mehta.

10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

If there were a god, then why do we have thousands of mutually contradicting religions?  If there were an all-intelligent super-being who wanted people to know what he wants from them, why has he done such a lousy job of communicating it?

People are superstitious, due to patternicity, agenticity, confirmation bias and credulous childhoods.  From that beginning, religions coalesce and grow and compete for followers, and those that are the most successful endure and spread.  (OOOOH- there’s that Darwin again!)  The other, less successful ones die off, which is why nobody is still worshipping Marduk or Osiris anymore.  Nowadays most people are stuck with some form of the mental malware of religion, but some of us are recognizing it for what it is and getting rid of it.

 

There, that’s enough for now.

Ham on Nye February 6, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses, UbiDubiKids.
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15 comments

There’s been so much discussion of the recent “debate” between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, so I’m not going to do a full review.  Bill did a good job, and Ken Ham was exactly the ideologue that I expected him to be. For a full commentary, see elsewhere.

But during the debate, there were a couple of things that Bill missed saying, and I was practically jumping up and down in my seat, saying “C’mon Bill, there’s a really good point I want you to make here, and you’re not making it!”

The first one is probably a small thing, and it’s where Bill missed Ham’s direct misrepresentation of the results of a radiometric dating test on a lump of lava containing carbonized wood. (I have not researched the particulars of this claim, I’m just discussing what was claimed at the debate.)  Ham claimed that the stone had been dated at 45 million years, and that the carbonized wood had been carbon dated at 45,000 years.  And Bill didn’t catch the glaring error here.  Carbon dating can’t go farther back than about 45,000 years or so, so if you use that test on something way older, the only result you will get back is 45,000+, and it can’t say how much older than that the sample is.  If you use the wrong tool to do your measuring, you get unhelpful results.  To me, this is like trying to weigh an elephant using a bathroom scale that goes up to 300 lbs.  No matter how accurately calibrated the scale is, if you try to weigh an elephant on it, the only answer you’ll get is “more than 300” or “off the scale”.  If you try to claim that the scale said that the elephant weighs 300 lbs, therefore the scale is useless, you’re just wrong.  And to claim the radiometric date of a rock sample can’t be correct at 45 million years old because a carbon date came back as 45,000+ is also just wrong.  And I’m pretty sure that someone would have pointed this out to Ham at some point, which makes him not only delusional, but a liar.

The second one, though, is a huge point that I really wanted Bill to hammer home.  Ham claims that creationism is science, but it cant be, because he is doing it backwards.  People doing real science start with the evidence, and draw their conclusions from the evidence, even if the results are not what they expected.  They then test their conclusions against the real world, and if they don’t hold up against all the evidence the conclusions are modified or thrown out.

Ham starts with his conclusion, then looks for specific evidence to back it up, and ignores everything else.  And he said flat-out that there is nothing that would get him to change his mind about his conclusion.  As a result, he’ll never discover anything new about the world.  That’s not how you do science, that’s how you do confirmation bias.  And that’s why his creationism is not a valid subject for science class.  I wanted Bill to really tackle him on this, and he didn’t.  Of course, Ham did a lot of Bill’s job on this, by stating that there’s nothing that could ever change his mind.   But I think Bill should have directly said “You’re doing it backwards” at some point during the evening.

p.s. I also have to point out that I love the way Bill kept referring to the venue as a “facility” and never once called it a “museum”.  Nice touch, that.

p.p.s. During the evening, Ken Ham actually said this: “Now, the Bible says, ‘If you come to God believing that He is, He will reveal Himself to you, and you will know.’ ”   He said it twice during his talk.  UbiDubiKid#1 was watching it with me, and she almost fell out of her seat laughing each time.  In between being overcome with fits of laughing, she said, “He’s just made the perfect circular argument!  Decide you believe in god, and then you’ll know there’s a god!”

 

That one spooky thing (continued) January 21, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses.
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5 comments

(In this series:  Part 1   Part 3  Part 3.1 Part 3.2 Wrap-up )

Okay, more on this.  If you have deconverted from religion, and have gotten rid of most or all of your superstitions, what do you do with that one strange experience that you can’t explain?  How do you work that out?

My list of possibilities looks like this:

  • It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you
  • It’s technological
  • It’s somebody deliberately tricking you
  • It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above
  • It’s “supernatural”

And last time I talked about natural and technological things that might be misinterpreted.  So lets continue with

Deliberate Hoaxes

People like to think that they are hard to fool.  And often they are completely wrong about this.   As Richard Feynman so famously said:

The  first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest  person to fool.

So let’s look at an example of a time and place where people are willing to be fooled – faith healing.

(more…)

That one spooky thing January 14, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses.
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3 comments

Olympic Blimp UFO

This is in response to several comments by Wylekat on Ex-Christian.net on this thread: http://new.exchristian.net/2013/05/why-do-most-people-easily-trust.html

Ordinary claims require ordinary evidence, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  That’s a really straightforward guideline.  It’s really useful for evaluating claims of things that supposedly happen or should happen predictably.  Things like whether intercessory prayer can heal people, whether homeopathy works, and whether psychics can actually talk to the dead or read minds.  It’s doable to set up a carefully controlled study to see if the effect that’s claimed is really there.  (James Randi has $1,000,000 waiting for anybody that can reliably demonstrate a paranormal ability under  conditions controlled to eliminate confirmation bias and cheating.  Nobody’s won it yet!) (more…)

Extraordinary event, extraordinary evidence September 9, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants.
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7 comments

I’ve been thinking lately about standards of evidence.  I see a lot of people make colossally outrageous claims (usually religious or pseudo-scientific), with little to nothing to back them up.  And they are taken aback when challenged that an ancient book or a feeling in their “heart” doesn’t suffice to convince anybody else.

So I wanted to look at an actual extraordinary event, and the evidence pointing to it having happened.

(more…)

Conclave evidence March 16, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Humor, Rants.
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5 comments

Religious people often accuse atheists of being “closed-minded”, claiming that we wouldn’t believe in their god even if they showed us evidence. I’d be perfectly willing to reconsider my position on the subject, if any solid evidence were ever provided. The problem is that they have an entirely different standard of what evidence is, and how much evidence is enough. Their god-claim is an extraordinary claim, and as such requires extraordinary evidence to support it. Their usual routine of “Look at how complicated the world is, I have a holy book, and I feel it in my heart” just doesn’t fly with me. But there are things that I would consider as good evidence pointing to a god, if they ever happened. But they don’t.

The recent conclave was a great opportunity for a god to give the whole world evidence that he actually existed. We had a bunch of powerful men running a corrupt institution, who were meeting to select a new leader who will protect and defend that institution from all outside threats. If there were no god, what we would expect is that these hard-liners will select a hard-liner from among their number who will continue running things just as they have always been. (Which is what always happens, and did again this time). But if these men actually had the kind of close link to a god that they claim they do, and if they were actually trying to listen to and obey the will of that god, then this would have been a great time for a god to produce an entirely unexpected result, and get the attention of the whole world.

Scenario One:  Cardinals emerge from conclave: “We’ve had a clear message from God that none of us is qualified to be Pope.  We’re all too involved in scandals and we’re totaly corrupt.  The next pope is to be chosen by popuar election, and present clergy are ineligible to run.”  This woud get my attention.

Scenario Two:  Cardinals emerge from conclave: “God told us not to elect any more Popes.  We’ve all been ordered by God to sell the Vatican, give all the money to the Red Cross and Planned Parenthood, disband the College of Cardinals, and then retire to a monastery.”  This would really get my attention.  I might start to think there actually wassomething to this god stuff  if something like that happened.

Scenario Three:

White smoke from the chimney (because if the Cardinals were actually guided by god, there would never be a need for any other kind).

Cardinals emerge onto the balcony and one steps to the mike.

“Erm, hello.  Yes…well…the thing is…    Um…well, we were expecting that God would lead us to elect a Cardinal as our next pope.  But we all had this vision first thing this morning.  Every one of us.  And then the jam in our breakfast oatmeal kept swirling around to form a name.  There was a face on each of our pancakes too, and it was all the same face, a face we recognized.  We thought, ‘This can’t be right!  We’re supposed to select a Cardinal!  We’re supposed to select a clergyman!  We’re supposed to pick a Catholic!  We’re supposed to pick a man!’

So we took our ballots, and we each wrote down the name of a Cardinal, and the ink actually moved on the page to spell a different name.  Every ballot!  Cardinal Dolan here even filmed it on his cellphone, just to be sure.  We’l post it on YouTube later today.

So…um…yeah…

Here’s your new Pope.  Chosen by God, this was totally not our idea:

(more…)